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Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Did Plant City leader help chief hide affair?

PLANT CITY — The woman who had an affair with then-Police Chief Steve Singletary told investigators that City Commissioner Billy Keel helped conceal the relationship by allowing Singletary to hide his police car at his business.

In an interview conducted under oath, Melissa Hardwick told investigators that Singletary twice parked his police car in a spot at Matrix Medical where it wasn’t easily spotted from the road. She picked him up at the business and drove to a Lakeland hotel where they had sex, she told investigators.

“Steve told him (Keel) that he was spending the day with me so he was leaving his car there,” she said. She said she believes Keel would check on the police car during the day.

She said that Keel, a partner in Matrix Medical, also tried to convince Singletary to break off the relationship.

“Billy tried to get him to stop, I believe, several times,” she said.

Singletary was fired Tuesday for misconduct that included having sex with Hardwick when he should have been working. Hardwick also told investigators that Keel encouraged her through a mutual friend to not cooperate in the investigation so Singletary could keep his job.

Hardwick’s 38-year-old husband, Jason, backed up her story in sworn testimony, and said his wife showed him texts that the friend sent “at the behest of Billy Keel.”

Hardwick, a 35-year-old elementary school teacher, said Singletary and his wife Courtney also asked her to keep her quiet. She said she decided she should come clean for the sake of her marriage.

“I just feel like it was the right thing for me to move forward with my life, with my husband and with my family to be truthful,” she said.

On Wednesday, Keel wouldn’t comment on Melissa Hardwick’s statement that he sent messages through a friend asking her not to cooperate with the investigation. He issued a one-paragraph statement voicing his support with the outcome of the city’s investigation that ended in Singletary’s firing.

He wrote that he hoped the people involved could “find closure and move on. In my opinion, it is now time for the City to move forward as well.”

City Commissioner Rick Lott, also a partner in Matrix Medical, said he had no knowledge of the affair or allegations that Keel allowed the chief to hide his car at the business.

City Manager Greg Horwedel, who ordered the investigation and made the decision to fire Singletary, said Keel is an elected official and doesn’t come under his authority. He added that during his only contact with Keel on the topic, the commissioner asked him to make sure it was a “fair investigation.’’

“He didn’t try to influence the investigation one iota,” Horwedel said.

In his sworn testimony, Singletary denied asking Melissa Hardwick to not cooperate and asked city officials to allow him to keep his $85,000 per year job.

He denied he neglected his duties to see Hardwick.

“My personal life should be my personal life and my professional life should be my professional life. Clearly I made a mistake, but it was in my personal life that I made a mistake,” he said.

Whether any criminal laws were broken by Keel is a gray area, authorities contacted Wednesday said. According to the Florida Commission on Ethics’ rules, a public official can’t use his or her office to secure a “special privilege, benefit, or exemption for himself, herself, or others.”

The use of a third party between Hardwick and Keel further muddies the water.

Ethics commission spokeswoman Kerrie Stillman said she couldn’t comment on whether anyone had filed a complaint with the ethics commission because complaints are exempt from the public record laws.

She said if an allegation arises that a public official “had corruptly used their position in a wrongful way, inconsistent with the public performance of public duties to bring about a benefit for themselves or someone else, if the facts indicate that situation, the complaint process here can address that.”

The Florida Attorney General’s Office referred questions to the ethics commission.

Prosecutors have not heard of any criminal investigations into Keel’s actions, said Mark Cox, spokesman for the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office.

“We are aware of the situation,” he said, “but we have not been contacted in regard to criminal charges.”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has not begun a criminal investigation into whether Keel broke any laws.

“We don’t have anything with Plant City at this time,” said Gretl Plessinger, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. “We haven’t received a complaint or a request to investigate.”

If a law enforcement agency, officials with the city or a citizen files a complaint, the FDLE would decide whether to conduct an investigation, Plessinger said.

“With any complaint we get, we look to determine if there is a criminal predicate,” she said.

City commissioners appointed Keel in November 2012 to serve the remainder of Dan Raulerson’s unfinished term. Raulerson resigned to take a state House seat.

Keel won a full three-year term when no one filed to run against him when the seat was up for re-election.

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